Pyonyang North Korean Restaurant

May 6, 2018
by Dan

Pyonyang North Korean Restaurant is an international chain of restaurants run by the North Korean state. I read about it online and decided to keep an eye out for opportunities to visit one. It’s understandable that the chain isn’t in every country as its profits go directly to funding North Korea.

So there’s a moral dilemma in patronizing it, sure, but I decided I really wanted to see it. I think it’s the closest I can get to actual North Korea as we currently know it. And I don’t mean geographically, or general Korean cultural. I mean like North Korea. I’m fascinated by the place because it is so closed off and mysterious. What is life really like there? It’s probably not as bad a US propaganda says, but also not as good as NK propaganda says. We are fed this idea that NK is some terrible dystopia but the photos that are allowed to make it out of the country just look fantastic. I would love to be able to see it for myself. Even an official guided visit (like this guy got) would be just fascinating.

Not that it would ever happen though. It’s just a day dream, but that’s why I really needed to visit this restaurant. And maybe my financial contribution is going to support our countries’ temperamental leaders working something out in the near future. Wouldn’t that be neat.

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Ok, so I was resolved to go, and Phnom Penh happens to have a Pyongyang restaurant. On one of our last nights in PP we made plans to go with a friend, an expat in PP teaching English. I read up about the restaurant in advance by looking at reviews and learned two things. First it is expensive, at least by Cambodian standards, so I was able to mentally prepare for that. Second, it’s really more of a “dinner and a show” sort of deal.

I called to make a reservation for slightly before the show started, to ensure that we got the full experience. I called the number listed on Google maps, and got bounced around until I got the English-speaking phone number. I told them I wanted to make a reservation at 6:45 that evening (the show was supposed to start at 7 pm). She said ok and was about to hang up. “… So the reservation should be for Dan Ott that’s o-t.’ ‘Sure’ *click*’

It was ok though. When we showed up we were the only white people there so who made the reservation turned out to be pretty obvious. As far as I could tell most of the other guests were Chinese. There was definitely a Chinese tour group next to us that came in late, were all served the same dish, and then left early.

The restaurant itself kinda looks like an Elks club that got set up for a wedding for a second marriage. The staff was all female and they were wearing floofy traditional dresses that feature in some of the photo albums linked above also. Christina got one picture before being told no photographs allowed (see the concerned lady in the blue floofy dress below).

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Next up was the task of ordering. We were given one absolutely enormous menu that took us forever to leaf through. This appeared to be unexpected behavior to our waitress. She hovered over us the whole time and appeared to be writing things down. It was a bit strange; I think she may have been writing down everything that we pointed at or discussed. Eventually we got a order ironed out consisting of kimchi, kimchi pancakes, a seafood porridge, cold glass noodles, and a beef stew. I was quite interested in ordering dog meat, but our companion on this journey was quite appalled at the concept when she saw it on the menu so I didn’t bring it up.

Before our dishes arrived we were served appetizers of a yeasty dough cube and some saucy cold potatoes. Then food that we ordered started to roll out. The kimchi was very strong and the kimchi pancakes were absolutely the best thing. I found the porridge a bit weird. I don’t really like seafood soups, but this was alright. In general it was more of Christina’s thing.

The cold noodles seemed to be the most popular or typical food to order. Probably a very distinctly North Korean dish. They were served on a very unique raised platter. The waitress mixed up some very horseradish-y mustard in the dish before allowing us to dig in. She also left the mustard on the table, which I found delicious and put on everything I could until she came back to take it away.

This mustard incident turns out to be quite interesting in view of this video of N Koreans trying American BBQ and saying that mustard is not a thing in NK. The noodles themselves were super rubbery and slippery so they were basically impossible to serve from the platter into individual bowls. Once you started on a noodle there was no option to bite it off, you had to find the end of the trail. The best main dish, imo, was the beef stew. It was very tender and spicy.

But the food was actually only a part of what was overall and beautifully weird experience. Basically after the first dish was served, the show began. It started with an extremely enthusiastic drummer. She wasn’t super tight, but she was so smiley and energetic and it was great entertainment. Then the show moved onto a few other acts. All the while, the meal is continuing with new dishes being brought out between acts. Quickly it became obvious that the show was being performed by the serving staff, who if they weren’t playing instruments or spinning plates on stage, were busy juggling serving their tables.

The other acts included some traditional singing and dance, a women spinning with extreme angular velocity while carrying bowls on her head, a Korean stringed instrument, a violin… all sorts of stuff. The best was when the accordion player came out. Then she was joined by another accordion player. Then a third. Oh shit, it was the drummer girl! Is there anything she couldn’t do? Though at this point I became a bit skeptical of whether or not they were actually playing their instruments. Our friend shared my skepticism. But I didn’t care either way. It was great entertainment.

The finale was quite a spectacle. It was a North Korean waitress rock band with sax, bass guitar, guitar, accordion, and drums performing a rock version of the 1812 overture …in Cambodia. It was one of the more bizarre, amazing, multicultural things we have ever witnessed. I highly recommend it.

The meal and the show was over and so it was time to pay up and clear out. Our server was the drummer and we tried to convey our delight with her musical talents, but it appeared that she only spoke a few words of English, which is perhaps not too surprising. We tried to give her a tip, it seemed appropriate given the hard work of the waitstaff, but when she saw the money in the bill holder she shook her head, left it on the table, and scurried off.

In the end, the bill for the three of us was $33; very affordable in US terms, astronomical in Cambodian terms. It was nice having a third person because we got to share more dishes. We were all very well fed and the experience, show, and general novelty was excellent.

With the bill settled it was time to leave, but I had one final mission. We were seated in a kind of corner of the restaurant, a bit behind a pillar. It wasn’t a great seat, but fine enough. Directly behind us was a display rack featuring a bunch of insam (ginseng) products and liquors on the shelf. Oh if I had the money I would have definitely bought so much stuff. But there were also stacks of books. Little pamphlets of different colors. I poked through them at one point and came to the understanding that they were propaganda written in different languages.

Eventually I found an English one, the only yellow one. It was a collection of anecdotes from Kim Il Sung’s Life. As we were leaving I tried to ask a waitress about them. There was some confusion, but they eventually understood that I wanted one. They said I could have it for free. The last English language copy. Yes! I was so pumped. I’m surprised they didn’t hand them out to all the guests. Seems like a good way to spread your message. Anyway I’m really glad I got it. It’s fascinating, full of stories about the stout resolve and wisdom of the leader, and hard working citizens getting choked up with emotion for the glorious generosity displayed by him. The front end is full of pictures of smiling workers meeting with the man himself. An incredibly interesting look at how NK wants to be perceived by the rest of the world.

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Sydney & Brisbane: the Vivid light festival, a long train ride, koalas & kangaroos!

June 23, 2018
by Christina

Our Greyhound ride to Sydney was about four hours, and as we entered the city the driver mentioned a light/art festival going on called “Vivid,” for which the clock tower of Central Station where he dropped us off was lit with a moving projection.

We got a bite to eat, ogled the clock tower,  and then caught a commuter train to meet Annette, who I met on a Nerd Fitness forum and kindly agreed to host us sight unseen!

The next day Annette took us to see the Australiana Pioneer Village, which is a collection of historic houses that have been relocated to this small village, complete with sheep shearing and a working blacksmith! We toured the cabins, bought some (exotic to us) Aussie lollies, and watched a Father-daughter biscuit dunking contest that made almost no sense whatsoever, then went for lunch at the pub nearby.

After that we spent a day in Sydney, seeing the sights. We took the train back to Central Station and walked north, visiting first the Anzac Memorial, the Archibald fountain, then St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Our walk culminated in a walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens and a visit to the famous Sydney Opera House. We walked around and took a good look at it (and plenty of pictures), before going inside and having a coffee in the lounge and making use of the free WiFi.

We wandered around a bit after that, getting lunch at a pub and running some errands, while we waited for the sun to set and for Vivid to begin.

Much like the census in Peru, and Khmer New Year in Siem Reap, it turns out we lucked into this beautiful annual event in Sydney that is called Vivid. This is a festival of lights and music, with freestanding light installations, and buildings used as projection screens for colorful shifting imagery. The opera house itself is a spectacular highlight. Vivid was gorgeous and we got incredibly lucky that it was happening when we were in town.

After our long day of touristing, we spent the next day relaxing at the house, and went shopping for supplies to cook dinner. It was a nice walk, including a park, to get to the nearest shops, which had an amazing bakery and butchers. Grant had to stay late at work, so Dan, Annette, and I cooked and ate dinner.

Then went to meet Grant at the movie theater to see Infinity War, finally. I have to say, I’m really impressed that the film has been out for so long, and no one managed to spoil the ending for me. Impressive. I enjoyed it, even with my usual desire to nitpick it to death, but in the end, I’ve got a serious beef with Dr. Strange. Brah, srsly?

The next morning we bid farewell to Annette and Grant (thank you guys so much! It was great!) and headed back into Sydney for our train to Brisbane. We had some time after we dropped off our bags, so we went to a pub for fish and chips, which paired with a dark beer really hit the spot.

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We also paid a visit to the Anime Architecture show at the Japan Foundation, which regularly has art free art exhibits. This was a collection of architectural drawings used as backgrounds in Anime films, including Ghost in the Shell. It was a lovely show.

Then we climbed aboard train to Brisbane for a 14 hour ride. Yeah, Sydney to Brisbane is further than DC to Boston. And let me tell you there were some colorful folks on that train, and not just the passengers. The lady behind us kept coughing spasmodically and getting off the train to smoke, and when she delayed the train’s departure a cranky staff member came by to chastise her in such a disagreeable fashion that I couldn’t decide which of them was more of a pain.

We arrived at the hideous hour of 5 am, and decided the only remedy was breakfast. To our amusement, we found a 24 hour pancake place that is housed in an old Cathedral called Pancake Manor. The food was on the expensive side, but the atmosphere was really cool.

After than the sun was finally up, and we made our way to meet Jo and David who helped us get settled into our friend Halina’s house. Halina is a professor and was out of town for a workshop when we arrived, so Jo and David helped us out and showed us around. They took us to visit Mt. Coot-tha for some lovely views, and then we went to dinner at Kenmore Tavern. It was lovely to meet them, thank you guys for being so welcoming!

We spent a few days hanging out at and around the house. Brisbane was much warmer than Sydney with both a lot of sun and rain, and one of its defining characteristics is the Brisbane River which makes many sinuous turns around the city.

When Halina came back she took us for a trip to see Brisbane city center. We went to the GOMA, the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, which was really cool, and we took a walk to see the clock tower at the Museum of Brisbane, but we couldn’t manage to get tickets to go up it. It’s free, but the time slots were all full.

Getting a close look of Australia’s unique wildlife was a high priority for us, so we went down to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. And there were tons of koalas, I even got to pet one! Tip: if you book online in advance you get a small discount on the entry fee.

There were kinds of other creatures, including cockatoos, platypus, emu, and even a cassowary, which is easily the most frightening bird Dan and I had ever seen. The Wikipedia article even says they are capable of killing dogs and humans. Definitely looked more like a dinosaur than anything else.

And as promised, there were kangaroos. Oh, the kangaroos. I got to feed them, you can put coins into a machine that dispenses kangaroo-friendly feed, it’s pellets like what you’d feed goats at a petting zoo.

Feeding them was frightening, because crouched down I was on eye level with them, and they have these really strong looking arms with claws. After India and how scary and thieving the monkeys were, I was afraid they would just knock me over and steal the food (one of them did decide to eat the paper bag!), but in temperament they seemed a lot more like goats or horses than monkeys. In other words, way less evil than monkeys.

Most evenings we hung out with Halina and had some lovely meals. We took turns cooking, and she is an excellent cook and a marvelous conversationalist. We had a great time visiting with her and catching up, thank you so much for having us to stay!

And just like that, our time in Australia was up! We bid Halina farewell and headed for to the airport and our next stop: New Zealand!

 

 

 

Canberra: cooking, cockatoos, and the War Memorial

June 17, 2018
by Christina

To get to Canberra from Melbourne, we had to take a train and a bus. We found the online purchase options a little confusing, so we picked up our tickets in person at the Southern Cross station downtown. I love train travel; you can walk around and there’s a buffet car!

When we arrived in Canberra, Ashley was there to meet us! Ashley is a friend of mine from Camp Nerd Fitness 2016, and it was so great to see her again. She’s been living in Canberra for several years now, and we went to stay with her and her housemate Adam for the week.

In South East Asia Dan and I didn’t do a lot of cooking, and since Ashley had to work most days, we got to have fun playing house spouse and cooking dinner. There was also a park right near by where I got to do some ring work outs. But I slacked a lot on the blog, which is why you’re getting this post almost three weeks after the fact!

Canberra is the capital city of Australia, located between Melbourne and Sydney and inland from the coast a bit giving it cooler weather. It was selected to be the capital in 1908 and is a designed city, making it like Washington DC in many ways, but it gets a lot of crap from non-Canberran Aussies as being boring and in the middle of nowhere. “Why?” was the most common question we got when we told people we were heading to Canberra. It’s true that it is a smaller, quieter city than Melbourne and Sydney, but it’s very beautiful, and we were very happy with our visit.

After a few days staying close to the house, we took the bus into town and went for a tour of a few important sites in the city.

The first of these was the old parliament house, which has been converted into a museum. There were historical exhibits as well as a children’s area, and the chambers where the legislators met. I even got to dress up like the whip.

My favorite part of this was the exhibit of the Prime Minster’s suite, including the main office and all the support staff offices. The entire space was made to look as it was in the 1980s (?) and everyone had just stepped out for lunch. There were files, ancient monitors, and filled ash trays on the desks, books on the shelves and sweaters on the backs of chairs. You couldn’t sit at the prime minster’s desk, but there was a small lounge area in the main office where you could sit. Easily one of my favorite museum exhibits.

Next we went to see “Within Without” (referred to also as “Skyspace“), which is an installation next to the National Gallery by artist James Turrell who does a lot of great light-based art. It is an open-roofed green-pyramid surrounded by water with a bright white interior space and a large round stone sculpture rimmed by a fountain. Words don’t do it justice. It was very cool. (Dan: If you’re like me and ever wondered what it would be like to step into a giant integrating sphere, I think this is pretty close.)

Then it was off to the National Portrait Gallery. Some of this was perhaps a little lost on us, since we weren’t familiar with that many of the portrait subjects, but the art was lovely and it was an interesting glimpse at Australian history based on who was placed in the gallery.

That night we went to a Lindy Hop dance class. Ashley is a great dancer, and attended the advanced class. I can dance some Lindy, so I hopped into the beginner class with Dan as a lead, and we had a lot of fun.

Ashley got Friday off, and we all went together to see the Australian War Memorial.

It is a beautiful building, and the Tomb of Unknown Soldier was stunning; every surface was covered in mosaic tile work, a style of art that we came to recognize as distinctly Australian. Seriously, the entire thing, every surface, was tiled.

The exhibits were fascinating, especially in terms of the contrasting perspective they have with the American perspective of WWI and WWII. For example, as a non-History buff and probably pretty-average-in-my-history-knowledge American, I didn’t know that much about the Pacific Theater during WWII, but of course, that was a major focus for Australia, including fearing possible invasion from Japan.

The memorial was huge, and even with five hours there, we didn’t manage to see everything before we got kicked out at the end of the day. We had finally made it to the Vietnam (American) War when we were told to get going by the staff.

Interestingly, cockatoos are kind of the Australian version of pigeons? At least in Canberra they were just everywhere.

We also saw a bunch of kangroos, which are evidently Australian for deer. No pictures of the ‘roos because it was too dark, but don’t worry, they’re coming back in an upcoming post…

For dinner, we went out to Grease Monkey to get burgers with an Australian twist: they put beet root (slices of beet) and pineapple on their burgers. Now, the pineapple I may have seen once or twice in the US, but the beet was brand new to me, it’s an Aussie standard. I didn’t end up having very strong feelings about the beet either way, but it was my first burger in ages (possibly over a year?) and it was really good.

Our last morning in Canberra we made a big brunch. I am a fan of bellinis (champagne and peach juice) as a breakfast cocktail, but in the absence of peach juice, apricot juice was found, and we named our champagne/apricot cocktail the Keelini, a play on Ashley’s last name.

After brunch Ashley took us back to the bus station from whence we came to catch our Greyhound and we made our goodbyes. Thanks so much darling! We had a great time :0)

Then… it was off to Sydney!

Melbourne, Australia: meat pies, beers, footie, and friends

June 8, 2018
by Christina

The flights from Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam to Melbourne, Australia were pretty uneventful. Due to an awards points opportunity we booked our tickets on Scoot, a discount Singapore airline, but concluded we didn’t care much for it. The seats were very tightly packed, more so than others we’ve been on, there was no complimentary in-flight anything and no in-flight entertainment system. We had a short hop to Singapore with a 5 hour layover there, followed by a ~8 hour flight to Melbourne. If it hadn’t been an overnight flight, I would have cared a lot more about the in-flight entertainment, but as it was I just settled in to sleep as best I could which, with the reduced space, was even less than on a normal flight.

We arrived in Melbourne on time, and waiting there to greet us was my friend Kris, who one day long, long ago was my summer adviser in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He moved to Australia with his family almost a decade ago, and it had been an age since we’d been able to catch up. He took us out to lunch, where we enjoyed a bay view and ate meat pie (savory pies are a big Australian thing, btw) before going to Kris’s house where we got to meet the rest of the family, his wife Liz, and their two sons, David and Kevin. We got to have family dinner with all of them several nights, which was delightful, and both Kris and Liz are excellent cooks.

 

That afternoon I went with Liz when she took the dogs for a walk, and I got to see a bit of the neighborhood they live in, a suburb called Beaumaris, which is right on the bay.

The next day Dan and I explored the neighborhood a little further, mostly staying close to the house. It was our third day in Australia that we finally made it into Melbourne proper to have a look around. It was overcast and drizzly, and it reminded me somewhat of Seattle with its tall buildings and public transit. And there is a Batman Park? With a helipad?!

Dan had discovered a landmark called Shot Tower, and we went for visit. This is a slender brick tower that was used to make shot, as in shot guns, via the gravitational method, wherein molten lead was poured through a sieve at the top of the tower, and as it fell it cool and solidified into small spheres which fell into a bucket of water at the bottom. This historical building is now located in the Melbourne Central mall, and enclosed by a cone of metal and glass, protecting it from the elements. There is a small museum that you can visit for free by entering a posh shop selling clothes and leather goods.

Before heading back to Beaumaris for dinner, we had a pint at Young & Jackson, near Flinders station, which was recommended to us by a local as very Australian or “Aussie as”. Which it turns out is not short for “Aussie AF,” but “Aussie as” is it’s own complete phrase signifying its quintessential Australian nature. Y&J was a pub with a big wrap around bar, high and low top tables, and plenty of sports on the TVs.

 

The next day we took a run along the beach in Beaumaris. It was a very nice view of the bay and the crisp weather was a pleasant change from running in the heat in Vietnam.

We made plans for cooking dinner that evening, something we hadn’t gotten (or needed) to do recently. I discovered that making vegan banana bread is both very easy and delicious, though I ended up slathering mine with butter. And having an eggless batter makes eating it before you’ve baked it worry free and extra-tempting.

Friday we did some thrift shopping and went out to lunch with Kris. Only they aren’t called thrift shops in Australia, they’re “Opportunity Shops” or “Op Shops”. Dan picked up a few replacements for clothes items that were wearing a little thin, and just generally had fun browsing. We got sausage rolls for lunch, another very Australian food.

That evening we went out to Chapel Street with Kris and Liz for dinner at a Polish restaurant called Borsch, Vodka and Tears, which was delicious. I got a horseradish vodka that I quite enjoyed, and Dan got a flight of different vodkas made from potato, wheat, and rye, as well as some charcuterie. After dinner we took a walk down Artists Lane aka Aerosol Alley to get a look at the art.

And by lucky coincidence we had a friend from graduate school, Matt, who just happened to be in Australia at the same time as us. He and his girlfriend Soja were taking a vacation from where they live in Germany, and they joined us for drinks at Buddha’s Belly just down the street from BV&T. We got to trade travel stories over some beers and it great to get to catch up. We all stayed out a little too late, but it was a lovely evening with friends.

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The next day we bid farewell to Kris & Liz, and went to visit another pair of friends who live in the Melbourne area: Olivia & Nick! Olivia was one of my classmates from my yoga teacher training in India, and her fiance Nick accompanied her to India, and stayed with her part time and did some trekking in the mountains. We got to introduce Olivia to Kris and Liz when she came to pick us up, and we had a chat over a cup for tea before making our goodbyes.

That evening we went out to the suburb of Richmond, which had just won a footie game (Australian Rules Football or AFL), and so there were lots of people out and about sporting the local team colors of yellow and black. We went to a pub to catch up with another pair of friends, Keitha and Jodie, who had also been in our yoga teacher training. They live a few hours outside of Melbourne, so we got lucky to get to catch up with them. We had a few drinks, catching up and enjoying the weather which was unseasonably warm. Yogis Down Under Mini Reunion!

We also saw a footie player loose in the wild, Nick identified him and explained he was a US basketball player who had been recruited to play AFL and was doing quite well, which isn’t always the case when players are introduced to AFL and all its (many, many) rules after they are established in another sport.

The next morning I went shopping at the local farmer’s market with Nick and Olivia, and when we got home, Nick cooked breakfast for us!

After that, Dan and I returned to Melbourne to catch up with my friend Erin, who I met many moons ago at Camp Nerd Fitness 2016. Sadly Camp got canceled for 2017 and 2018, but we are holding out hope for CNF2019! Dumplings are all the rage in Melbourne these days, so we met Erin for lunch at Dumplings Plus, and then headed over to the Holey Moley Golf Club for 18 holes of mini golf, on a very creative and colorfully lit course. So much fun, and great to see Erin again! ❤

That evening we got back together with Olivia and Nick in time to attend their family basketball game. They have a team registered in the local league and meet up every Sunday for a game, a tradition that they started several seasons ago. It was fun to watch the game and meet their family.

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Nick cooked us a lovely dinner that night, and we had one last hang out before our heinously early departure for Canberra the next morning. Nick and Olivia are truly saints for getting up and driving us to the train station at 5 am! Thank you lovelies!!!

 

One Year Travel Anniversary!

June 3, 2018
by Christina

It was June 2, 2017 that Dan and I climbed into our car to begin our travels: a one-month US road trip visiting friends, followed by 6 months in Mexico, Central and South America, then 5 months in India and Southeast Asia, and suddenly, here we are in Australia, and it’s been a year!

To commemorate this occasion, I thought I would make a photo-recap of our travels so far. At 12 months in, we’ve got another 7 months to go, but we’re well over half-way done with our marvelous journey.

USA! Including stops in CT, MA, NY, PA, NC, FL, LA, and TX

Mexico! Including Monterrey, Mexico City, and Palenque

Guatemala! Including Flores, Semuc Chempay, and Guatemala City

Costa Rica! Including Santa Teresa and Tamarindo

Panama City and the canal

Colombia! Medellín and Guatapé

Ecuador! Quito and Papallacta

Peru! Lima, Cusco, Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu) and Puno

Chile! La Serena, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Valparaiso, and Santiago

India! Including New Delhi, Rishikesh, Jaipur, Bundi, Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Amritsar, Agra and Varanasi

Vietnam! Including Hanoi, Cat Ba, Ho Chi Minh, and Vung Tau

Luang Prabang, Laos

Thailand! Phuket, Koh Phangan, and Bangkok

Cambodia! Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Kep

And now, we’re just getting started in Australia… post from Melbourne coming soon!